Behind 'Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck' - An Interview with the Director of the Cobain Documentary
Two decades after his suicide and the cult of Cobain is unwavering. We talked to director Brett Morgen who was given unrestricted access to the Nirvana frontman's archive to create this doc.
Courtney Love and Kurt Cobain. Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck photo courtesy of HBO Documentary Films.
This article originally appeared on Noisey.
It’s been 16 years since filmmaker Brett Morgen was last at SXSW. Back then he was touting his boxing documentary, On The Ropes. While there, he also happened to attend the screening of his friend’s film in the 320-capacity Austin theater known as The Paramount. Morgen was one of nine audience members; another person in that slim number was his future wife. Sometimes the 46-year-old and his wife joke that they might never have met had the annual SXSW film and music festival been as insanely crowded and sloppily drunken way back then as it is today. Three children and seven features later and Morgen’s back to premiere, Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck—the first officially sanctioned Kurt Cobain documentary, which makes its televised premiere on HBO on 5.4. Courtney Love and his family opened Cobain’s private archives to the director, as well as providing candid interviews, alongside Krist Novoselic and Kurt’s former girlfriend Tracy Marander. Frances Bean Cobain sits in as executive producer. (Dave Grohl is conspicuous in his absence. Unfortunately his interviews were conducted too late for the edit.)
Morgen is no stranger to buzz: On the Ropes went on to receive an Oscar nod, and The Kids Stays in the Picture, about Hollywood wild man Robert Evans, and 2012’s Crossfire Hurricane,which pillaged The Rolling Stones’ bottomless archives, were both met with resounding acclaim. But, having already screened at Sundance, in Miami, and Berlin, with a trailer that went viral when it dropped earlier this month, the anticipatory chatter about Montage of Heck—both on the streets of Austin today, and beyond—is deafening. Twenty-one years after Kurt Cobain decided to take his own life, and the singer is still worshipped, a riddle never worked out, an endlessly re-examined tragic genius. Meanwhile, Nirvana’s back catalogue continues to resonate with successive generations. But Morgen asserts this two hour plus opus is not just for die-hard grunge fans.
“This movie is not necessarily about a punk rock singer in his band, it’s about a boy and his journey through life,” exhales Morgen. “With all my movies, the thing I try to do is find the universal, the thing that transcends the subject matter.”
With Morgen’s guiding hand the viewer is granted privileged access to Cobain’s chaotic life, from his first steps, through his troubled adolescence and teenage angst, charting Nirvana’s ascent, falling for Courtney, the birth of Frances, and his eventual descent—when the pressure of fame and his drug use spiraled and sent him off the edge and into oblivion. We enter his world through home video footage, audio recordings, journals, sketches, and poems, and discover there’s much more to Kurt than previously imagined. Watching Montage… is an intense experience, by turns chillingly eye opening and desperately intimate.
Though the decision to do so was daunting, Morgen decided to animate segments of Cobain’s paintings and private journals, as if the singer is scribbling before our very eyes. At other points Cobain is brought to life as a sketched out avatar with his voice narrating both the story and his feelings. It’s an impressive and unique technique that could have been jarring mixed with the doc’s more traditional elements, but it really works here.
I meet Morgen at Austin’s Four Seasons ahead of the film's SXSW premiere later that afternoon. The line at the cinema is already snaking round the block, with zealous, determined fans patiently waiting since the early hours of the morning. Dressed in a slighlty rumpled black suit, crooked skinny tie, and brown leather Chuck Taylors, Morgen seems tired, but not the type of tired where you actually want to go to sleep. Despite the excitement surrounding the film, the director's feelings regarding it are bittersweet.
“Of course, I’m happy that people are responding to the film in a positive way, but this is a very emotional movie, you know,” he explains. “It doesn’t feel very celebratory. Kurt’s not with us, which puts a cloud over everything.”